Responses to the top 5 reasons teachers stay away from education policy

Recently on the Teacher Leaders Network, I landed in a discussion about the many great teachers we know who, for a variety of reasons, stay far away from education policy. In this post, I’m trying to respond to what I see as the top five reasons teachers tend not to get involved.

One: It’s not my job to be involved in education policy.

My Response: While it’s not in our job description to be involved in education policy, it is in our best interest to voice our perspectives, because policies directly affect the conditions of our work, our ability to do our best for our students, and our willingness to stay in teaching.

Historically, teachers have been the recipients of policies written by outsiders, higher up on the ladder than we are. We experience the results of decisions and usually have plenty to say about how they play out in our schools. How many times have you issued some choice words about the latest education legislation at lunch with a group of colleagues? Why not hone that message and share it with a wider audience? Also, if the policy makers are at the top of the education pyramid, who does that leave at the bottom? Students and parents. And that’s just not right. We need to challenge the current hierarchy so that the people who matter most in American public education, students, parents, and teachers, have a bigger voice. Teachers, especially, who are most directly responsible for the’ education of students, need to be heard on the issues.

Two: Nobody wants to listen to teachers.

My Response: There is now ample research that says that the single most important factor in a child’s education is the quality of his or her teachers. This is causing policy makers, media, and the general public to focus a lot of attention on teachers. Some of that attention has been in the form of negative attacks (wholly unproductive), but there are a lot of policy makers and influential organizations that are very interested in what teachers bring to the policy conversation. Center for Teaching Quality and Teacher Leaders Network have been at the forefront of the movement for getting teachers involved in education policy, and the progress over the last ten to fifteen years has been huge, according to those who’ve been involved longer than I. Even in the seven years I’ve been a public school teacher, the idea of teacher leadership has gone from a pretty much unknown concept to an on the ground reality for many teachers and many schools.

The real question is, now that there are so many ears and eyes on us, what do we say? Do we need one coherent, forward-thinking message? If so, how might we arrive at that? If not, what would a variety of teacher-driven policy messages look like?

And once policy makers are listening to teachers, how do we hold them accountable for using the information they get from us well?

Three: I don’t have time for education policy.

Ok, this one becomes a little harder for me to argue with. I get it; certainly, I do. At the end of a busy, tiring day, the last thing you need is more work. But I would ask, do you read the newspaper or watch the news? If so, you are getting some information on education policy, but from too limited a source. Round out your education reading a little bit.

Spend ten minutes after you do your regular reading of the paper, reading about education policy from educators who follow it closely and speak from their experiences. Try the blogs at Edweek Teacher (Teacher Magazine), or Public School Insights, or any of my colleagues’ Teacher Leader Network blogs connected to this site (see below on the left), or the new teacher blogs at the Huffington Post Education section.

Join the conversation by leaving ONE comment. Additionally, you can be involved by forwarding an article or blog post to one colleague or interested friend. Finally, you can follow most of these bloggers on twitter and get a multitude of interesting and quick thoughts and links to news. Sometimes, believe it or not, after a long day, some sane words from a thoughtful educator about the big picture of what’s going on in our profession and in our schools is exactly what you need!

Two: I might be interested, but I really don’t want to read more about education.

So you’d rather get your information, or enter the conversation, some other way. Seek out someone at school whose brain you can pick about education policy–a teacher who is involved in some way, whether he or she just reads closely or takes part through the district, the union, blogging, or some other avenue, such as TLN. Often, teachers involved in policy outside of school tend not to discuss it at school, thinking no one is interested–many folks on TLN have shared that, and I have experienced it at times. Show interest and you never know what might come of it.

Or…ask your principal what he or she thinks of what’s going on in education these days. It could be very interesting. You will certainly get a different perspective than your own or that of other teachers, and it will also be different than what the media is spreading. Teachers and principals inhabit the same world, but deal with the policy hierarchy from two different levels. Often, principals are as shut out of policy as teachers are, but have to figure out how to implement mandates at the school level. In general, more open dialogue between teachers and administrators–where possible–can be a good thing.

Also, the next time you’re at a dinner and someone asks you what you do, respond by telling them something real about your experience teaching that they might not already know. Be an informed source on education for a few minutes. (Just make sure it doesn’t turn into a vent, or they will might never bring up the subject again.) Influencing public opinion is as important as influencing politicians.

You can also resolve to respond to those emails from your master’s degree program alumni group, letters from your union, or other calls to actually attend an education-related event, face to face. Once you enter the conversation in whatever way works for you, other opportunities will unfold.

One: It’s all the same; I read everything I’ll ever need to read on education policy in my master’s program.

​No you didn’t!!! Unless you are currently in ed. school, lots has happened since you read your last book on American education. And if you’re really worried about reading about the same old story, you need to check out TEACHING 2030, the book about the future of our profession, written by me with 12 other actual teachers and Barnett Berry (a long time advocate for teacher voice in policy). It is not the same old story! And you are a part of shaping the way toward a better future for our schools. We’d love to share our ideas with you and hear your responses soon.

Also, for something new, check out the Big Ideas Fest, where innovators from many different sectors related to education share their work, (and I presented an idea from our Teaching 2030 book).

Whatever your level of involvement is or will be, the most important thing is to realize how much each of us, as teachers, actually matters in the world of education policy. We do our work in the spaces where education policy makers intend to make change. The more we can know about these policies and make our voices and positions known, the more sensible the changes will become.

[image credits: hand. woodleywonderworks sinking cruise. http://www.strangedangers.com politician with teachers. Office of Governor Patrick]

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  • Rob Purington

    Reaction to Post

    The essence is that students are compelled by the culture to be present, but not to be academically productive.  Vocationa programs really help because they bring the student closer to real world work.  Academic programs cannot show the same immediate connection.  Governments are paying for the schools and those who are paying for the service require a yardstick of accountability.  In this way schools are no different from other sectors such as military or industrial that must also produce statistics for their shareholders.

    Just posting on a blog creates some conversation but the conversation does not seem to go anywhere.

    I think writing letters to our state legislators might be more productive than just talking with other teachers.  That is, if the legislators are willing to consider the opinions of their constituents.  Other areas are to try to win over parents and mobilize the to become communicators with their legislators.  To complain that there are too many tests, misses the point that governments who are paying for a service, be it head start of high school, need a way to measure the effectiveness of those services.  Also we do not have a cultural concensus, but diverse views, about what education should accomplish.

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